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The Path to a Respectable Defense

If the 2021 NBA Playoffs have taught us anything, it’s that having a respectable defense is still crucial to team success.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Minnesota Timberwolves Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves having poor defensive seasons is a tale seemingly as old as time itself. While there are some exceptions to that statement, they have been few and far between for the franchise. In the 32 seasons that the Timberwolves have graced the hardwood, they have posted only 6 seasons with a defensive rating better than league average (1998-99, 1999-00, 2003-04, 2005-06, 2012-13, 2013-14). That leaves 26 seasons with a below average defense. Kevin Garnett was a part of 4 of those 6 better than average seasons.

One would think that the law of averages will come onto effect at some point, but when have Minnesota sports been anything close to normal?

This current Timberwolves core has looks to be no different. D’Angelo Russell has been a poor defender his entire career. Karl-Anthony Towns has only just recently earned the “average to above average” label as a defender, and Anthony Edwards showed flashes of defensive prowess but was ultimately a significant negative of defense during his rookie year. Now, don’t get me wrong, it is entirely too early to predict exactly what Edwards will be as a defensive player, but there is a load of work to do to be an impactful defender.

Utah Jazz v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Jaden McDaniels, the surprise of the season, is considered by some (myself included) as part of the core of this team going forward. The rookie out of Washington was the Wolves best defender this past season. Still, there is only so much a 180-pound 20 year old can do.

The entire scenario sounds like a doomsday admission, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The Timberwolves have the firepower to be a top-10 offensive team in the league going into next season. To be a playoff team, Minnesota has to just be serviceable, say around 20th (give or take a few), on defense.

Good Offense, Bad Defense

During the 2020-21 season, the Atlanta Hawks finished as the 8th best offense (116.28 rating) and as the 21st defense (113.89). They went on to a record of 41-31 and finished as the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference. Yes, I know, the East isn’t as stacked as the West. Regardless, finishing 10 games over .500 and winning in the first round is impressive for a team with a below average defense.

If you want a comparable Western Conference team, look to division rival Portland. The Trail Blazers finished the season as the 4th best offense (118.28) and the 29th defense (116.58) and ended as the 6th seed in the Western Conference. Of course, the Blazers got bounced in the first round in 6 games at the hands of Nikola Jokic, but if I was offered a first round loss next season for the Wolves, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it.

All of this is to say; the Timberwolves are not a lost cause, even with poor defense. Post All-Star break, Minnesota had a 16-20 record (11-9 with Towns and Russell both in the lineup) and looked like a competent team with wins over Utah (x2), Dallas, Golden State, and Miami.

Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

This season, the three man grouping of Towns, Russell, and Edwards posted a 120.9 offensive rating and a 116.0 defensive rating. Those marks would rank them at 1st in offense and 28th in defense. Not ideal, but definitely a playoff team. The sample size isn’t huge, but it is small by no means. Still, I’d be remiss not to mention that the team has to play minutes without that three man pairing on the court. So they aren’t going to be the best offense in the league next season - Brooklyn still exists - but they certainly are on the right track.

The question is, how do the Timberwolves become a respectable defense?

Getting A Rim Protector

The obvious answer to the above question seems to be getting a rim protector to play alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. That player can come as a power forward or as a center, in my opinion. The position label doesn’t matter to me as much as the ability to man the paint does. Towns showed as the season went on, that he is very capable of moving his feet on the perimeter and staying with opposing players. Towns isn’t built like the typical switch big, but he isn’t built like the typical rim protecting big either.

What we have seen from Towns as a defender for most of his career has been a player that is active, much to his demise, in the paint. This has caused him to over commit to the ball handler, chase blocks, and foul out of games for years. Chris Finch, and the great basketball mind that he is, decided that instead of trying to harness that activity from Towns in the drop scheme, he would instead use that activity to his advantage.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

I studied Education for four years and have learned a lot about how the human mind works. One thing I learned is that when people find something they like to do, they generally give more effort when doing it. I know, it sounds like common sense, but it roots to a deeper understanding of intrinsic motivation. It is clear that Towns likes chasing wings and guards around on the perimeter. Allowing him to do this gets the most effort out of him, which is important in the context of building a competent defense.

The problem is, if Towns spends a large part of his time playing perimeter defense, the Timberwolves need someone to play the “center” spot defensively. I don’t know who that player is or which version of that player is available for the Timberwolves to feasibly acquire. The ideal player would be able to space the floor on offense and be able to hold down the paint on defense.

It would also be nice if that player was somewhat switchable, but the Timberwolves are going to struggle to find someone who checks each and every box on the wish list. If the Timberwolves retain their pick this year, perhaps that player is Evan Mobley. That player could also be someone like Myles Turner, which you would have to find a way to trade for. There are a host of other players who could be the rim protector, but would hinder the spacing and options on offense.

Jaden McDaniels, the Small Forward

The Timberwolves getting a rim protector next to Towns helps them in more ways than one. Breakout rookie Jaden McDaniels played much of his time at the power forward position this past season. While he was able to hold his own down there, he is slight of build and not ready to bang with opposing centers on a nightly basis. Under Chris Finch, Jaden saw more of his minutes at the small forward position.

After his breakout early in the season, we saw the Timberwolves use McDaniels as a point of attack defender often. He was tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player, almost regardless of position. McDaniels saw himself matched up against the best of the best and he held his own.

With his ability to switch onto anyone from the point guard slot to the power forwards position, McDaniels is best suited to play at small forward. I asked Chris Finch about their plan for Jaden McDaniels this offseason and what position they would prefer to have him in for next season.

Finch’s answer, after reading the tea leaves, was that they would prefer Jaden be a small forward but they’ll use him at power forward if they can’t get their hand on the right guy to pair with Towns in the frontcourt.

McDaniels playing the small forward next season would mean good things for the team’s defense. First, as I mentioned, it would mean the the Timberwolves likely found a good defender to put next to Towns. Second, it would mean that Minnesota would have one of the lengthiest lineups in the league. Let’s take a look at what a potential starting lineup could look like next year.

Untitled

Position Player Wingspan
Position Player Wingspan
PG D'Angelo Russell 6'10"
SG Anthony Edwards 6'10"
SF Jaden McDaniels 6'11"
PF Mobley/Turner/Average PF 7'4"/7'4"/7'1"
C Karl-Anthony Towns 7'4"

One of the best ways to improve defense is to add length and boy, does that lineup have it. If the Timberwolves can find a way to add a solid defender at the 4 or 5 next to Towns, then their starting lineup looks to be in good shape. A unit of McDaniels, (let’s say) Mobley, and Towns would be a very fun defensive backcourt to shore up the mistakes made by Russell and Edwards.

McDaniels would be put on the opposing team’s best player 1-3, potentially 1-4. Towns and Mobley would guard the opposing bigs, Edwards would be thrown on the second option guard or wing, and Russell could be hidden on the worst perimeter player on the opposing team.

While Russell may not be a good defender, we have seen him play with much more purpose and effort when his team in playing well. He has great length and size for a point guard, which helps him not be overpowered/oversized when being hidden on opposing wings.

Edwards length and athleticism could be harnessed to wreak havoc in passing lanes, especially when knowing McDaniels, Towns, and Mobley (of another defensive big) have your backside covered.

Is It Enough?

If the Timberwolves were able to finagle a lineup similar to the one I posed above, then they would be in good shape on both ends of the floor. It certainly wouldn’t be perfect, but that certainly sounds like a top 10 offense and top 20 defense to me, which would have them comfortably in the play-in, if not the top 6 seeds in the West.

The trouble is, finding a way to obtain that coveted second big without giving up too much. The best way is to retain the pick in the draft lottery later this month and select someone like Mobley or trade the pick for an established player. Otherwise, you have to hope that another team likes Malik Beasley enough to give up a good player for him or that a team hits a rebuild and wants Ricky Rubio’s contract on the books to expire after this season.

Regardless, President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas and company better have been practicing their floor exercise, because there will be a lot of roster gymnastics this offseason.